On Giving the Experience for Combat

In a hangout game last week I mentioned that I didn't give experience points for killing monsters in +Numenhalla.

I was taken aback as it was pointed out that every single person in the hangout gave no experience points for combat.

The Problem with Experience in a Nutshell

I've talked at length before about why I don't give experience for killing monsters.

I have had conversations about why we should kill someone we've encountered because we'd be letting the experience points go. If we get 600 experience each for killing the bear, then I want to kill the bear. I don't care if it's just minding its own business in the forest.

There are lots of subjective solutions to this problem. That's a problem for me too. I like to have a quantifiable, objective, clear, goal that grants experience. The first time the game has to stop so that someone can tell me what I would or wouldn't do based on my alignment is the last time I'm motivated to continuing to play that game. I'm not playing D&D so someone can tell me what to do.

It's also very important to me that it doesn't dictate in character action, but rather drives creative play. This is why I have a problem with "Get experience for opening this lock/casting healing spells/killing this monster." And not, say "You get double experience for any treasure you secretly hide from the party if you're a rogue and you get experience points for gold."*

This is even more distasteful to me when the action the character is forced to commit is a subjective one, e.g. "Uphold your religion." The only way I know if I've done that is if I ask the Dungeon Master. If it's just a tithe and spending time preaching what's the cost?  If it's actions in play, then I either have to act, uncertain of what the Dungeon Master considers "upholding my religion" or ask him what I should do.
  • Objective
  • Drives interesting player behavior
  • Doesn't dictate player action
  • Doesn't cause the game to stop to justify in game actions

But the new Dungeons and Dragons gives experience points for fighting. Is there a way to handle this player expectation objectively? A simple metric where they get experience points for enemies, and not for slaying various wildlife creatures? Perhaps one that encourages creative play?

The Case In Point

Some of this requires a bit of worldbuilding. Certain threats in a heroic style game like fifth edition supports should be slain without question. Others, such as the Red Wizard at the Old Owl Well should not be slain without question. We don't want to punish combat in this instance, but we do want to provide an alternate method of earning experience without encouraging characters to engage in unnecessary combat.

It's an excellent example. If you were players, after finding the wizard and completing his quests, there is no mechanical reason not to kill him and a very good mechanical reason to kill him**. My Lawful or Chaotic Good fighter uses some rationalization to kill someone who has committed no crime because -- what? He decided?

Necromancy is not a crime in the realms. Really. Dungeons and Dragons Basic rules notes that Raising Undead isn't a good act and isn't done frequently by good people. That doesn't mean people should be executed for raising undead. In moments someone brings the objective or subjectiveness badness of raising undead and then. . .

My problem here is that this discussion solely to find a diegetic reason to kill an opponent so you can get the experience occurs. I don't want to have this discussion. I want to play D&D. I want it to be clear what you are rewarded for and I want that to integrate seamlessly with the mechanics to avoid diegetic discussions ("Well, I want to take this action, but why would my character?")

Hence Objectivity. Hence Objective Evil. Hence Factions.

Here is the outline for Old School Style Objective Experience in fifth edition. Note my use of the optional experience points for gold option granted in the Dungeon Masters Guide.

Old School Style Experience For Fightan!!!

There are five categories of opponents.
  • 1) Monsters are creatures that are objectively evil, irredeemable beasts who only desire the dissolution of all things.
    • Which creatures are monsters is dependent on the campaign. Some campaigns might deem orcs as monsters, whereas in the Forgotten Realms they are clearly intelligent opponents with a culture, classifying them as a Faction.
    • Natural CreaturesFaction members or Innocents that are hostile, turn hostile, or attack the party first are considered Monsters and grant experience.
    • If Natural Creatures that are hostile are released, befriended or neutralized without destroying or killing them double experience is given for good or neutral characters.
  • 2) Natural creatures are creatures, plants, constructs, and non-intelligent animals that are part of the ecosystem. 
    • Killing natural creatures grants no experience.
  • 3) Factions are people who belong to certain organizations that you have relationships in certain ways.
    • You get no experience for attacking or harming friendly or neutral factions.
    • You get listed Monster Experience for killing hostile factions.
      • Note: if you attack a neutral faction, you get no experience for killing in that combat, but if the factions bond becomes hostile, then in future combats you will receive the listed monster experience. Note that unlawful killing with malice aforethought makes you a Monster.
  • 4) Innocents are non-combatants and non-involved people.
    • Killing innocents never grants experience.
  • 5) Wonderous Creatures are individual magical beasts or singular unique creatures that do not belong to a faction. No experience is given for slaying such a creature. These are effectiely equivalent to a faction of one.
    • This includes such creatures as thinking undead, dragons, sphinxes, and other individual intelligences. 
  • Alignment does not categorize the creature as a Monster.
    • Chaotic creatures are unconcerned with civilization and the rule of order
    • Evil creatures are unconcerned with the well-being of other creatures
    • Creatures with Blue/Orange morality are treated as unstable factions, where the status of the faction is inconsistent between meetings.
    • Outsiders are considered a faction based on their nature and origin to primes.
    • Although these are objective realities, they do not consign creatures to being monsters. The following acts do, regardless of the motivation for the act.
      • Unlawfully Killing or attacking with malice aforethought members of a Friendly or Neutral factions, Innocents, or animals. Unlawfully means not legally justified murder, killing an animal for food or in self-defense is fine. Malice aforethought exists if a killer intends to kill a person, inflicts serious bodily harm that leads to death, or behavior that exhibits an extreme reckless disregard for human life.
      • Trafficking or acting directly as servants for Monsters
      • Intentionally causing severe suffering, such as rape, torture, or other evil acts
      • Human laws such as treason, sabotage, fraud, etc. that don't meet the above qualifications may make a person evil and may make them a criminal, but they don't make the person a Monster.

  • Experience is given 1:1 for treasure discovered. 
    • Treasure are non-owned items, trade goods, or coins of significant value. 
    • Evil creatures receive 5:1 experience for treasure discovered and not shared with companions.
  • Experience is given 1:1 + Experience of the monster or hostile faction member for equipment and gear taken.
    • Equipment and gear are owned items, trade goods, and coins of significant value from monsters or hostile factions.
    • Taking the treasure of a Monster or hostile Faction member grants experience as if the creature were killed, only if the creature was not killed.
    • Evil and Neutral creatures and characters receive 2:1 experience for equipment and gear taken from living opponents
  • The Listed Experience is given for Hostile Factions or Wondrous creatures that are bypassed or neutralized on a 1:1 basis. If made friendly and neutralized or captured and returned to justice grant experience on a 2:1 basis to good aligned characters. 
  • Player may at any time be informed of the status of any item or creature by request. ("Is this treasure?" "What type of category does our opponent fall into?")
Complicated? A little, but it seems to both be clear and objective.

In this example, the Wizard at the Old Owl well is neutral, and attacking and killing him provides no experience for the fight, though they would receive experience for his treasure after the combat. Stealing the treasure without fighting him would give no experience (taking from a neutral faction) but you'd have the treasure, and if discovered would make him both hostile and likely to attack you. The resulting combat would give you experience for killing him. Of course, you have to commit theft to cause that chain of events to occur.

The Nothic in the Redbrand hideout would be a Hostile Wonderous creature, granting experience if killed, or able to have it's attitude changed to neutral or friendly.

* Obviously there's some ground where "interesting play" is up for debate. For me "Killing a monster" dictates behavior, and isn't particularly interesting play once combat starts. In 4th edition, this might not be the case. "Opening locks" is normally a simple roll, but may be considered interesting play if you have a subsystem with player choice involved.
** It is super-duper important to note here that there may be plenty of non-mechanical reasons I can invent not to kill him, but I'm a firm believer I shouldn't have to fight the mechanics of the game as the Dungeon Master in order to have a non-dissonant play experience. In an old-school game murdering everyone isn't dissonant. It is much so in a big(ish) damn heroes game like 5e set in the forgotten realms.

Hack & Slash 
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  1. This seems like it could be expressed in a simpler fashion... a lot of the cases seem to be elaborations on you get XP for Monsters, but certain conditions have to be met for something to count as a Monster. Like, a dragon is a Wondrous Creature, so no XP, but almost any evil dragon is going to be a Monster by virtue of having committed unlawful killing, so... does it really need its own category? There's also a tension between the description of Monsters as irredeemable beasts desiring only the dissolution of all things and the fact that a person can be categorized as one for unlawful premeditated killing regardless of motive... so even if you're Robin Hood, you're a Monster.

  2. It's a game, right? There's an in-world fiction.

    So, it only matters if the dragon commits unlawful killing on-screen. So, for the players, it indeed does need its own category. Maybe the dragon is just killing natural animals for food. As above, evil just means unconcerned with the well-being of other creatures. Selfish.

    Much like in movies, bad guys have to do something bad on or off screen. It has to be shared with the audience. Otherwise, it's the players that are the bad guys. This is the thing that avoids the diagetic discussion raised by your "any evil dragon is going to be a monster" comment.

    The definition of monster, "irredeemable beasts" applies to, well, monsters that are ok to kill. Humans fall into the "ok to kill" category once they begin killing innocents or faction members, etc. The point here is to define objectively what the player characters are getting experience for.

    If you joined Robin Hoods faction, you automatically become hostile with King John's faction and can kill and receive experience points from them with impunity.

  3. I just think there's probably a simpler, clearer way to express this than the current formulation. I'm not sure what that is, but I'll ponder it a bit.

    I totally get that it's ok for Robin Hood's faction and Prince John's faction to kill each other and have it count for experience... but as I read it aside from the factional opposition Robin Hood is a Monster and Prince John is not, which means anybody at all can get XP for Robin Hood but only Robin Hood's faction members for Prince John... that seems to push towards the kind of weird player motivations vs. game mechanics this it trying to avoid as players have incentive to figure out reasons to hunt down Robin Hood but give Prince John a pass.

  4. Limiting XP from combat to certain categories of enemies seems like a good way to avoid the fight everything tendency (which I agree is boring), and I particularly like the idea of tying faction association into the system somehow.

    I do think this is perhaps overcomplicated, however, and a bit legalistic. The way that changing faction relationships so that certain creatures gain XP value seems vulnerable to manipulation is a non optimal way.

    It also seems like you are potentially ignoring the faction value of alignment in favor of a philosophical interpretation. That is, why not just simplify the definition to "defeating chaotic creatures grants XP." That is the approach I took in Grimmsgate, it is easy to remember, and it seemed to work well. It also gives a nice, impartial value to the detect evil/chaotic spells and abilities.

    1. Because half the party is chaotic good?

      That said, I'm open for anyone taking it and trying to make it more succinct. It wasn't like I was trying to add anything extraneous.

    2. I'm thinking here from the perspective of threefold alignment. Law, neutrality, and chaos as in the 3 LBBs. Or the slightly more cosmically explicit version presented by LotFP and Carcosa.

  5. Or... Give XP for experiences? Like, coming upon some orcs, regardless of the outcome, ought to be worth some amount of experience. For instance.

    That's how I do it- treasure plus experiences = XP

  6. I'm pretty sure these ideas can be expressed much more clearly and concisely.

    You receive EXP for killing enemies. "Enemies" can mean:
    - Any party or individual that is hostile towards you*
    - Members of an opposing faction, even if they are not currently hostile
    - Irredeemable creatures**

    Notably, no EXP is dispensed for:
    - Neutral NPCs
    - Noncombatants
    - Natural creatures
    - Unique magical creatures***

    You receive EXP for accumulating treasure. If you take treasure from an enemy without killing them, you gain EXP as if you killed them (in addition to the EXP for the treasure itself).

    * Apparently you do get EXP if you provoke a neutral NPC or noncombatant into fighting?

    ** This category is probably unnecessary -- you could just call "unintelligent undead" or "wolf-tribe orcs" an opposing faction, which is good enough to justify getting EXP from them.

    *** This category is strictly unnecessary. If the wondrous creature is neutral, it gives no EXP; if it's hostile, it gives EXP (per your examples).

    1. I like this. Maybe it can be further distilled:

      You receive EXP for killing enemies. "Enemies" means any party or individual that is hostile towards you or towards noncombatants (opposing factions are considered hostile even if they are not currently engaged in hostilities).

      You get full XP for neutralizing/by-passing enemies. Good characters get double XP for enemies made friendly or captured and returned to justice; evil and neutral characters get double XP for loot taken from living enemies. Evil characters get 5 times XP for loot not shared with the party.

      Something like that.

    2. I would specify that "Enemies" are those that were hostile before combat started. Once you've attacked them, of course anything's going to be hostile.

  7. I give xp for combat in B/X D&D, only because the experience characters get for slaying monsters is a pittance compared to the experience they get for treasure. A medusa in B/X is worth 425 experience... divided amongst the entire party.... for a monster that has two different save-or-die attacks. Slaying a medusa solo wouldn't even give a 1st level thief the experience necessary to advance. The type A treasure she guards, however, is worth thousands of xp. If the PCs want to just attack her and risk half the party being slain, they are welcome to.

    ...but then, the xp awards for combat have increased considerably since then.

  8. You may be over thinking this. A good DM should be able to choose when to give experience points away. If the hill giant's bear is attacking you and you kill it, then xp come your way. If you go bear hunting... Well, that is being a hunter, not a magic-user, fighter, thief, cleric, etc. and no xp are awarded. It is similar to high level PCs not getting xp for killing low challenge creatures.

    1. I totally get why Courtney wants to formalize this in his game, though. It's precisely to avoid negotiating with the players case-by-case over what constitutes good GMing and good play.

  9. 5E specifically says that you get experience for reaching goals and dealing with a threat in any way - including bypassing it, negotiating with it etc. The Old Owl Well wizard is an anomaly in the Starter Pack, I half suspect it may be an editing error.

    I expect the DM Guide to have some options explained for XP, including XP for treasure and so on. As always, it's completely down to the DM and the group to decide.

    1. An anomaly that sets precedent. I don't want another roper in the Sunless Citadel debacle.

  10. Replies
    1. it is as simple as I can make it. Perhaps a smarter person than I can simplify it.

  11. You could just turn Monsters into Gold, via a bounty, valuable body parts or riches in the environment.

  12. What is the purpose of experience? What does ot represent? What does a level mean to a player?

    It seems to me that this discussion is lacking the answers to these questions.

    In all versions of the game, a level is combat-related. You gain hit points, a better to-hit chance, better saving throws, better/more powerful spells (the majority of which are designed for use in combat), etc. Shouldn't the criteria for earning XP be tied to the rewards? It makes sense to say, "you get XP for fighting and a level (the culmination of earning XP) makes you BETTER AT FIGHTING.

    As to which opponents give XP... I think the problem is a confusion over root cause. Why are the players having discussions of when to kill neutral or harmless NPCs? Is it that the game rewards random, psychotic behavior? Or is it that the DM does nothing in-game to discourage this behavior? If you're plsyer behave badly, show them the impact: have them arrested. Send a mob after them. Or a rival band of (real) heroes. Or an army. Wandering murderers are typically bad news for everyone. Don't let them get away scott-free; show them how their actions impact their world. You know, instead of generating artificial constructs for awarding a different set of (limited) behaviors.

  13. Incredibly late to the game, but I 100% agree with your post.

    I remember doing all the math after AD&D sessions back in the day, especially back then when classes had different XP thresholds per level, making it a tedious operation all around and have no interest in returning to it in 5E.

    I like XP based on encounters/scenarios and how they players solve it, including providing bonus XP if they do something creative. It makes the game not all about combat, instead it makes it about problem solving (which often involves killing anyway).

    It also makes characters that might not technically be as "powerful" areas to shine. Most of the comments about Classes in the PHB (on places like reddit) are people complain about about combat. Warrior is better than Monk, Beast Master Ranger sucks, Moon Druids are way OP at level 2, but then are horrible until level 19, etc., etc., etc. When so much focus is on one part of the game, it's easy to find faults and ignore arguments that represent the rest of the gaming experience.

    1. Yeah, those reddit comments are ridiculous. It's really hard to be better than other people in 5e, and pretty much you can play whatever you want and not be useless. and the game focuses pretty explicitly on a lot of things besides combat.

      I especially like how in every thread that there is over there about min/maxing, it's repeatedly pointed out that there's very little difference between a maximized character and one that you just want to play.

      Those people posting—They are doing it as a hobby, because they certainly aren't playing three or four times a week like people in the OSR.


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